Written by Emma Sliwinski
A national expert on the history of slavery, a slave food specialist and a professional storyteller all are visiting Roanoke College this week for a series of events to help the college community learn more about a campus building that once was home to slaves.
Joseph McGill, founder of the non-profit organization, the Slave Dwelling Project, spent Thursday night and also will spend Friday night in the Quarters, a former slave residence located beside Monterey House.
On Saturday, Jerome Bias, a specialist in slave foodways, will give a cooking demonstration, and Dontavius Williams, a professional storyteller, will perform the story of “Adam.”
Saturday’s events will also include tours of the Quarters, Monterey House, and the Clay Street House, located at the corner of Clay Street and Thompson Memorial Drive.
Monterey House is the college’s guest house, located on the top of the hill at the corner of High Street and Clay Street.
Built in the mid-19th century, there are many oral traditions and ghost stories associated with Monterey. However, behind the house, about 20 feet away, stands the Quarters, a brick, two-story building that possesses an equally fascinating story.
The Quarters, built around 1850 by the Deyerle Bros. Construction Company who employed enslaved African American brick
masons, served as a house for the eight slaves owned by the original owners of Monterey until the close of the Civil War. During the Reconstruction Era and well into the 20th century, the building experienced a handful of changes, particularly to its exterior architecture.
A few years after Monterey became a private boarding house, as labeled on the fire insurance map of 1898, the owners added the carriage house currently connected on the side of the Quarters.
Later, in 1903, the double-story, white, wooden porch currently located on the south side of the building was added. Since then, the current physical features of the Quarters have remained unaltered and in relatively good condition.
However, according to local historic preservationist Mark Clark, the Quarters experienced a fire at one point, and the damage from it is evident by the sight of the excessively soot-covered fireplace, the black bricks on the chimney and a handful of charred floorboards.
Clark also said that the foundation has experienced a generous share of moisture damage over the years.
Roanoke College has worked to maintain the building since it acquired the Monterey property in 2003, and it intends to restore the Quarters in the near future once a determination has been made as to the best use of this historic resource.
For the past several years, the structure has served as the field lab and storage facilities for both the college’s archaeology program, Virginia’s state archaeologist and the archaeologist working at the Western Regional Preservation Office located on Elizabeth Campus.
With the help of Roanoke students in a historic preservation course taught by history professors Whitney Leeson and Mark Miller and a team of professional historic preservationists of Southwest Restoration, the Quarters is being restored back to its 1850s architecture.
As part of the course, the students assist in restoration work on the Quarters and conduct archival research to establish a historic and architectural context for the structure.
The students are also engaged in bringing the story of the Quarters to the public and are also organizing a living history program to raise awareness of the importance of saving slave quarters as an architectural resource important for telling our story as a nation.
The events funded by the Copenhaver Scholar-in-Residence Program, will include two sleep-overs in the Quarters, several lectures on slave foodways, and a living history program entitled “Behind the Big House: Living History through the Eyes of the Enslaved.”
According to McGill, the purpose of the Slave Dwelling Project is to serve as a resource for documentation on the history of slavery in the United States and to preserve the historic value of slave quarters across the nation.
One major part of McGill’s work involves traveling to various slave quarters in both northern and southern regions of the United States, and staying overnight in the old establishments in an attempt to gain the fullest understanding of the conditions and spatial limitations—often a mere 18 by 20 square feet —of the places where slaves spent a majority of their time.